George Silver Vs The Italian Invasion

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By Doug Bingham

Free Scholar - Bankeside Schoole of Defense

Aug 2009

Download George Silver vs the Italian Invasion.doc


The introduction of the rapier in England in the latter part of the sixteenth century led to a profound change in the theory and practice of personal swordplay, as it had existed up to that point in time. Its effect was to eventually supplant the traditional English sword as the blade of choice among at least the higher classes of Englishmen for individual combat. Indeed the rapier, as with all fads and fashions, permeated the very culture of England. This can be seen in the works of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Tourner, and Middleton.

The period was a violent one, not only militarily, but also in both criminal aspects of society as well as in defense of one’s honor. Subsequently, methods of personal defense were commonly sought, as chronicled by Raphael Holinshed at the time: “seldom shall you see one of my countrymen above eighteen or twenty years old go without a dagger at least at his back or side…. Our nobility wear commonly swords or rapiers with these daggers, as doth every common serving man also.” During this time a gentleman’s code of honor developed throughout Europe, incorporating the symbolism and idealism that surrounded the sword. This code of honor was exhibited in the ever-increasing phenomenon of dueling, in which the rapier played a central role. As a result, men sought to develop and improve skill and technique with the sword. This fed the growing establishment of competing schools of defense, as well as published works on the subject.

It was during this time that Italian fight masters started working in England and became increasingly influential. Led by Rocco Bonetti and followed by Jeronimo and Vincentio Saviolo, the Italians began to supplant the established organization of the English Masters of the Noble Science of Defense, an order of scholars of the sword founded primarily in the middle class, who had received letters of patent from King Henry XIII in 1540. Unfortunately for them, those patents died with Henry and were not renewed by subsequent monarchs. Bonetti specifically targeted the upper classes as his pupils and sought noble patronage. These were the individuals that could afford the expensive rapier. They were also fascinated with all things Italian, such as clothing and dance. Bonetti established a studio at Blackfriars and included such amenities that at the time would have been seen as necessary luxuries of the gentlemanly students of his school.   This caused the English masters to also seek out noble patrons.

The English masters were renowned for work with the sword and buckler. The fighting styles taught for these weapons were based on battlefield methods with a primary emphasis on cutting blows. They relied heavily on the brute strength and stamina of the combatant. The Italians taught swordplay in mathematical terms, utilizing a sophisticated blend of physical technique and mental discipline. For example, Giacomo Di Grassi, in his “True Art of Defense” teaches that a line is shorter than an arc and therefore a thrust is quicker than a cut. Another example of this thinking is that there is more force at the extreme circumference of a circle than closer to the center, thus a blow is more effective near the point than near the hilt.

Resistance to the Italian instruction came mainly from the English Masters and their supporters. Some of the voices disparaging the Italians were Sir John Smythe, and George Silver and his brother. Silver was an English gentleman, descended from Sir Bartholomew Silver, who published a rather biting reproof of the rapier fad. A self-proclaimed expert in the use of all manner of weapons, Silver was apparently not a professional teacher of the sword and appears to hold some distance from the English masters, though he clearly demonstrates admiration for them. His published work “Paradoxes of Defense” gives an item-by-item rebuke of the rapier and the Italian teaching methods. For example, Silver disputes the notion that a thrust is quicker than a cut, and points out the advantages of a blow over a thrust.   Not that Silver dismisses the thrust, for he points out that the combatant should have a ready arsenal of attacks and defenses.

Ironically, Silver considered rapier swordplay too dangerous. He essentially accuses the Italian masters of giving false instruction and misleading their students in ways that could result in injury or death. He breaks this down into four problems he refers to as marks. “The first mark is, they seldom fight in their own country unarmed, commonly in this sort, a pair of gauntlets upon their hands, and a good shirt of mail upon their bodies.” Silver points out that Italians trained and fought with protective gear, information and equipment they apparently omitted while instructing their English students.

“The second mark is, that neither the Italian nor any of their best scholars do never fight, but they are most commonly sore hurt, or one or both of them slain.” This described defect is the tendency for a double kill to occur in a rapier fight. The Italians’ instruction, as Silver saw it, was to thrust aggressively. In their defense, however, the Italians taught methods of voiding the body while counterattacking. Certainly masters such as Di Grassi and Saviolo agreed with Silver in that they all pointed out the error of rushing into the fight, encouraging instead methods founded on holding oneself back, analyzing one’s opponent, and counterattacking.

“The third mark is, they never teach their scholars, nor set down in their books any perfect length of their weapons, without which no man can by nature or art against the perfect length fight safe, for being too short, their times are too long, and spaces too wide for their defense, and being too long, they will be upon every cross that shall happen to be made, whether it shall be done by skill or chance, in great danger of death, because the rapier being too long, the cross cannot be undone in due time, but may be done by going back with the feet, but that time is always too long to answer the time of the hand….” Silver speaks a great deal of the problems of sword length. At that time there was no standard for sword length, and some undoubtedly thought that if a long blade was good, a longer one was better. This thinking became such a problem that Queen Elizabeth eventually proclaimed that “selected grave citizens” should be situated at city gates “to cut the ruffs and break the Rapier’s points of all passengers that exceeded a yard in length of their rapier, and a nail of a yard in depth of their ruffs.” Silver points out that the perfect length of a blade allows the combatant to uncross his sword without having to step to uncross it. If too long, the blade is unwieldy.   If too short, one’s timing is off.

“The fourth mark is, the crosses of their rapiers for true defense of their hands is imperfect, for the true carriage of the guardant fight, without which all fights are imperfect.” Silver felt that rapier guards were insufficient to protect the combatant’s hand. In reality, of course, the rapier hilt was designed for rapier fighting, which relied heavily on thrusting with a lighter blade. And as rapier hilts became more sophisticated, the protection they offered increased.

            In his work Silver defines what he calls the “true Fight.” He explains this as the hands moving before the feet “because the hand is swifter than the foot.”   He states that moving the hand with the foot causes the combatant to be “tied to the time of the foot or feet, and being tied thereto, has lost his freedom, and is made thereby as slow in his motions as the foot or feet….” Silver refers to this as “false.” By contrast, Di Grassi, for example, emphasizes that leg movement should match hand and body movement. The Italians did, however, teach voiding and counterattacks as a part of their footwork and not merely to fight and move at the speed of one’s feet.

Silver also teaches six reasons “that many valiant men think themselves by their practices to be skillful in their weapons, are yet many times in their fights sore hurt, and many times slain by men of small skill or none at all,” referring, of course, to the instruction given by the Italians. First, Silver states they do not teach the “four governors,” which are judgment (knowing at what point your opponent can reach you, and you him), distance (the space needed for defending oneself), time (the time it takes to attack or retreat), and place (likely the orientation of a combatant relative to his opponent). Of course the Italians did give instruction in these areas, though not necessarily in the exact same way Silver taught.

Next, Silver states they do not observe the four “actions,” which he labels “bent” (preparation for an attack), “spent” (termination of an attack), “lying spent” (the moment after an attack), and “drawing back” (withdrawal of a weapon and/or retreat). Third, Silver states they do not understand timing with regard to the attack, and that they leave it more to chance. “…they are unpracticed in the four true times, neither do they know the true times from the false, therefore the true choice of their times are most commonly taken by chance, and seldom otherwise.” Fourth, Silver says they are unacquainted with the “variable fight.” This refers to combatants who try a wide variety of attacks and responses. Both Di Grassi and Saviolo agree with Silver on this regard in that a good swordsman must be prepared for a variety of methods presented by an opponent.

The fifth item goes back to sword length, with Silver chastising overly long rapier blades that force the combatant to step back to uncross blades with his opponent. In his last point, Silver continues deriding the rapier. “The sixth cause is, their weapons are most commonly too heavy both to defend and offend in due time, & by these two last causes many valiant men have lost their lives.” Due to some of the over-long blades of the time, many rapiers would have been out of balance or “too heavy” and therefore unwieldy.

Silver goes on to accuse Italian masters as deceitful, listing four reasons. First, their instruction is “imperfect.” In other words, it is not based on the principles he teaches. Second, rapier work is best conducted in the gentlemanly arena of a classroom. Third, an unskilled learner cannot tell what kind of instruction he is receiving. And fourth, that rapier play is technically unsound. This last point he illustrates with examples. He cites a situation in which two sea captains draw weapons and in all haste and gallantry proceed to simultaneously kill on another. He also, with amusement, points out the opposite situation, in which two like-minded combatants who are insistent on the defensive posturing, wait and wait until they find a way to end the fight peacefully and go their separate ways.

Silver also addresses the question of whether it is better to attack or defend by stating, “…there is no advantage absolutely, nor disadvantage in striker, thruster, or warder, and there is great advantage in the striker, thruster & warder, but in this manner.” In other words, either can be better. Or worse. He clarifies his statement by saying it depends on relative circumstances. “In the perfection of fight the advantage consists in fight between party and party, that is, whosoever wins or gains the place in true pace, space and time, has the advantage, whether he is striker, thruster or warder. And that is my resolution.” The Italians, on that point, certainly agreed.

            In the end, for all of his resistance and his carefully drawn arguments, Silver did not prevail. The overwhelming interest in the rapier dominated personal combat for many years to come and left the English style behind. It was only when it was supplanted by yet another fad, the small sword, that the rapier faded into history.



Doug Bingham 2009





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